F. Keith Brown, the first black judge and chief judge in the 16th Judicial Circuit, is stepping down after nearly 23 years on the bench.
The 57-year-old Elgin native held his final court call last week and now plans to work for a Chicago mediation firm, become more active in philanthropic causes and travel more for pleasure and missionary work.
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"This is a great job, and I love it. I could do it another 20 years and still be a happy person," Brown said Monday. "I've always said to myself I wasn't going to define myself just being a judge. I want to explore other opportunities."
Brown was 34 with his own private law practice in Elgin when he was encouraged to apply for a vacant associate judge position. Although he envisioned an eventual career in politics, Brown applied because he wanted to increase diversity on the bench.
After winning election to a circuit judge seat in 1996, he presided over all types of cases, ranging from felonies to divorces, and served as chief judge from 2008 to 2011.
"I've always been a strong advocate for diversity. I've been a strong advocate for more women being on the bench," he said, adding that he is disappointed that with his retirement there are now no African-American judges in Kane County. "I think we've made some great strides, and I think some of the strides could have been made sooner."
Brown said some of the most difficult cases he presided over involved divorce and child custody disputes. Going through his own divorce several years ago helped give him more perspective, he said.
Brown believes he is well-suited to work as a mediator, noting his role in helping settle a lawsuit between former Kane County Circuit Court Clerk Deb Seyller and Kane County Board Chairman Karen McConnaughay.
"I have one of those personalities that's conciliatory. I always look at the big picture," he said. "That's my skill set, getting people to sit down and come to an accord."
Brown said being a judge is restrictive in the sense that he can't use his name or time to support certain community groups or charities. He plans to do that, learn a foreign language, and spend more time with his kids and grandkids.
"There's certain things I can't say because I'm a judge. I would love be able to express myself," he said. "I love being here, and I'm soaking in every last second of it. Even though I had said I was going (retire), it's still hard to do."
Mark Uteg, a West Dundee attorney, became friends with Brown after they met at a YMCA camp more than 45 years ago.
Brown could not act as a judge for any of Uteg's cases because Uteg worked on Brown's campaign for circuit judge in 1996.
Still, Uteg had high marks for Brown's approach and lauded the unique set of experiences Brown brought because of his background.
"He had a fresh look that he brought into that office. He's a very bright man, but he never talks down to people," Uteg said. "He does have an uncanny skill for getting people who don't agree to find middle ground. He had an acuity for seeing what people would take, wouldn't take and what was reasonable."
Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon also praised Brown's service in the court's criminal, civil and family divisions.
"He constantly demonstrated a commitment to justice and fairness in all of those assignments," McMahon said. "In my interactions with him outside the courtroom, and seeing him work with the county board, he demonstrated an ability to build consensus among groups that often have different interests."